Why I Love the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon

Frank nears the halfway point

Frank nears the halfway point

 

I have written about this race before, The Caesar Rodney Half Marathon, in which I described the race, its history, and the particularly challenging profile of the course.  In brief, the first half of the race is relatively flat after an initial downhill first mile.  Then, there is a long and sometimes steep, 2.5 mile uphill climb, a number of turns through neighborhoods, then a downhill stint to the final steep uphill 1/3 mile to the finish.

This race is run the third Sunday in March, when chill winds still blow.  In fact, this year, we had a snowstorm all day Friday two days before the race.  Most of the snow on the streets melted the following day when it rose to 50˚F, but then the temperature dropped back to below freezing that night.  For race day, we had gusty winds and temperatures in the low 40’s.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

What is good about this race?  It is one of the first races of the early spring, meaning to be in shape, one must train through the winter.  So, it encourages fortitude in training when the weather is frigid, daytime hours are few, and the conditions on the ground can be pretty miserable.

It is a race with a history.  It is one of the first half marathons in the country, first run in 1964 when Browning Ross, from Woodbury, NJ, won it in 1:07:24.  It has been run every year since then, making this year the 52nd running.

It is well organized.  Runners are given permission to use the Downtown Wilmington YMCA locker rooms, to store gear, use indoor restrooms, and provide showers after the race.  Few races I know of have that sort of facility available.  Picking up one’s number and race packet is simple and done on the day of the race.  There is a very friendly bag drop manned by volunteers.  In fact, there is a friendly atmosphere throughout, and senior Delaware Senator Tom Carper, former Delaware governor and congressman, former naval air commander during the Viet Nam war, runs the race with the rest of us.

It is for a good cause.  The money raised goes to support the American Lung Association, certainly an easy tie in with running.

From a personal view, this was my first half marathon, and the race I keep returning to year after year.  I first ran it in 2007, missed 2008, but have run it every year since.  Up to this year, I have been kind of stuck in a rut, time-wise.  My times these past years have been fairly consistent:

2007  1:51:59

Brandon at the finish line.

Brandon at the finish line.

2008  Didn’t run

2009 1:49:45

2010  1:49:48

2011  1:49:40

2012  1:53:35

2013  1:49:16

2014  1:49:34

This year I wanted to break out of my rut.  I ran fairly consistently through the darkest days of winter, through slush and cold rain, enjoyed the occasional cold but sunny morning run on the weekends, and was feeling pretty good going into the race.  Still, I had some trepidation.  I know the course, and how challenging it is.  After running it all these years I know every turn, and know when it seems like the race will never end.

So, I lined up with everyone else at the start, and took off feeling good.  One cannot help feeling good in a race which starts heading downhill for a mile.  Of course, the clever among us will recognize uphill is coming.  Instead of feeling washed up as the road headed up, though, I felt I still had some energy in me, and managed to gut out the 2.5 mile climb mid-race.  I cruised back down the hill towards the finish, and my good friend and running partner, Brandon, came back to encourage me on the last mile.  This all resulted in a very satisfying finish of 1:47:56, my best half marathon anywhere.  I finished fifth in my age group, averaging 8:15 per mile.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

Now, I’ve set the bar higher for myself, and each year get older.  I’ll really have to turn up the training screws next winter.

Arrivederci Winter

Moon, 4:30 AM, Friday, March 5, 2015.

Moon, 4:30 AM, Friday, March 6, 2015.

The whole eastern part of the U.S. was under the icy clutch of a band of frigid air the last two weeks. This air traveled from the Pacific, over the north pole, through the northern reaches of Canada, freezing Niagara Falls as it crossed the border and settled on our home. When winter comes upon us, everyone wonders, will this be another year of little snow and mild temperatures, or will we get hit with big snowstorms, creating scenes of pathways dug through backyards to driveways, snow piled high in parking lots, plows running up and down our roads, salt spray painting our cars gray-white, and people walking through the snow bundled with layers of clothing, knit caps, and big gloves.

While the weather forecasters got it mostly right this year, they did miss on a couple of occasions, when the snow hit Boston but pretty much missed us in South Jersey.  We managed to get a late winter snow three days ago, in the early days of March, while the temperatures were still in the frigid single and teen digits.  I went for an evening run the day of the latest snowfall.  It was only 7:00 PM, usually a time of the later rush hour crowd irritated and pushing to get home, but the roads were oddly quiet.  Since it had been snowing all day, it seems many businesses closed early.  The snow plows had passed through, but the snow kept falling, so the streets were covered with a thin layer of snow which had not turned to ice.  The combination of fresh snow everywhere, low clouds, and streetlights made for a very well-lit run in spite of the sun having disappeared an hour earlier.  There was a nice, faint crunch under foot as I ran, and the cold air felt good in my lungs.  My run took me past many local small shops and restaurants, all closed for the weather.  With one exception, that is.  The bars were hopping.  I think the bar owners get special attention from the snow plow drivers cleaning their parking areas.  Perhaps they need to pay a little extra for this but I’m sure it is worth it.  Teachers can’t get to the schools, but they make it to the bars.  Office workers get in late and sent home early, but they can make it to the bars.  Doctors, lawyers and dentists close early, no patients or clients are braving the slick roads to make their appointments, but they all make it to the bars.  The last few miles of my running route I pass about ten bars and every one of them was doing business like it was St. Patrick’s day already.  There is a quaintness about bars in the depths of winter.  It’s dark outside, the windows are frosted over, and one sees the profiles of the people inside all animated and lively.

In my house, we retreated to the front part of the house where the den with the fireplace is. The back half is beset with all sorts of problems. We live in an old Victorian, and the original design did not account for living in the 21st century. Bathrooms and appliances have been added over the years, and in spite of best intentions, cold air manages to sneak in like a cat burglar, freezing the water within. This past week, as the temperature dipped to a cruel zero, streams of that dense cold air moved in and around our old pipes, freezing some and leading to a couple of burst pipes.  This year, I had the foresight to at least turn off the inflow to these pipes so the damage was minimized, but we’ve had to wait until the thaw before we could fix them.

This weekend, though, brought a break in the icy pattern.  As we clicked over to daylight saving time, temperatures soared to 52 degrees.  The sun shone brilliantly, melting the patches of ice on the sidewalks.  Constant rivulets of water flowed down the street as the snow melted.  And people are out getting all their usual weekend errands in, not sure how to deal with a day when the only cover up needed is a light jacket.

Now we can start thinking about getting the garden ready for planting, cleaning up the debris that conveniently was covered up by the snow, and watch the road crews fixing all the treacherous potholes which have multiplied the last few weeks.  I’m sure in a couple of months we’ll be baking in premature heat, barely remembering how cold it got and stayed this winter.  Before that happens, I’d like to have a few more fires in the fireplace, have a reason to wear long tights and two layers on top when I run, and feel the cold air filling my lungs.

A Slog through the Slush

Here’s how the conversation, via text, went:

It’s all slush and big puddles out there do you think we should run?  And it is raining, too.

Sorry, just saw this.  Let’s go for it.  We won’t know till we try

Okay.  I am just getting ready now.

Take your time driving over.

That was at 6:45 this morning.  The snow, rain, freezing rain, and sleet had started the night before.  I was out with friends in Philly, and late at night, heading for the train, we marveled at the enormous size of the snow flakes falling steadily.  With the temperature close to freezing, they turned to slush as they hit the ground.  This morning, I stayed in bed as late as I could but still make a 7:00 AM start to my morning run.  My running partner and I had the above conversation and so I was committed to the run.  I was relieved, since I didn’t want to be the one to make the call, knowing this would not be our best run of the year.

We had to gingerly pick our way from his front door out to the street, not wanting to start running with cold, wet feet.  The road had not been plowed, and while the “inches” of snow were not that much, it was all wet and forming large pools of ice slurry.  We started off very slowly, running along areas cleared by tire tracks, being careful not to slip as we went downhill towards our loop around the park.  We had to run in the street rather than the multi-use path, which was completely covered by this slurry.  As we ran, we picked up the pace a bit.  Along the Cooper River, the geese were out in force, coping with the conditions without a problem, as far as I could see.  Approaching the far end of the loop around the park, the path was one large slush puddle, which we muddled through.  Now my shoes were wet, and my feet cold.  On the far side of the park, the road was narrowed by construction.  We had to run along on the road, with cars passing us closely and spraying ice and frozen water on our legs.  I think it was partially on purpose, since not all the cars came that close.  We moved over to the construction zone, running in ruts created by a truck that had gone through recently.  As we ran we were able to have a nice conversation, since the forced slow pace made talking that much easier.  We talked about running in the winter, and also about the play I saw last night at the Lantern Theater.  The play, called “Doubt, A Parable”, by John Patrick Shanley, takes place in a Catholic School in the Bronx, in 1964.  The story is that of an older nun, the principal of the school, suspecting the priest of having sexual relations with one of the boy students.  The story gets complicated when one hears the boy’s mother’s side of her son’s life.  The play takes only ninety minutes with a single act, and seems to leave out some crucial inner thoughts of the four characters.  One critic I read afterwards suggested the second act was when the audience discussed their feelings about the play.

Our run finished with a long uphill climb and then a flat last mile, still with the skies gray, and our feet cold and wet.  But accomplishing our seven miles, and then warming up with a change to dry socks and shoes, a dry shirt, and a hot cup of coffee was very satisfying.

A parable is a short narrative about individuals meant to be an example of a larger truth.  So, this narrative I relate to you shall also be short, and meant to convey that even when nature is uncooperative, getting out and doing is better than holing up and not doing.

 

It’s all about that pace.

It’s all about that pace, ’bout that pace, no hustle.

It’s taken a little time for me to settle after my last marathon experience.  The short of it is, I cramped up at mile 16.5, and after a brief rest and another half mile, I wasn’t able to continue.  This was to be my tenth marathon, and I hadn’t quit any before, even when suffering mightily.  So what was different this time, and what went wrong?

There are many marathon training programs out there.  Runner’s World Magazine, Jack Daniels, Hanson, Hal Higdon, and others specify when to start training, how often to run, how far to run, and at what pace for one’s abilities.  Generally, one starts about sixteen weeks ahead of M-day, progressing in miles and longest run as the weeks progress.  The basis for this is the way our muscles and heart accommodate to the demand of steady running for three to four hours.  That kind of endurance, unless one is particularly exceptional, requires a long build-up.  Things can go wrong the day of the marathon.  Weather can be awful, a virus can lay out a runner, but if one has not put in the training, a perfect day will not make up for that lack.

For me, the training for my latest marathon, Philadelphia, November 23, 2014, started on time and rather well.  I had a good base, coming off a half marathon in Nice, France, at decent time in late April, and the 10 mile Broad Street run in early May in Philadelphia.  I’ve always designed my own training program, since sticking with one of the popular plans is just impossible due to my work schedule.  I also was working with a new marathoner, helping her train for her first marathon.  We had our long runs planned out for every Sunday, a mid-week ten mile run, and other training runs in between.  Paces were mixed up, and routes changed so that we would not fall into automaton behavior that comes with repetition.  My first slip up came about seven weeks before the marathon.  We were doing one of my favorite long runs, 9 minutes at a 9 minute per mile pace, then 1 minute at a fast pace, generally about 7’45” per mile, for a total of 14 miles.  One does need to keep an eye on the watch, and the pace, to get things right.  Done well, the miles fly by, and the run is energizing.  I think my eyes were too closely focused on the watch.  At about eleven miles, along a dirt path being graded for paving, I hit a rock with my toe and fell hard and fast.  I came down on my right side, connecting my chest, shoulder and head to the ground.  Fortunately, nothing was broken…I think.  I may have broken a rib but it wasn’t displaced and so since nothing would be done about it, I didn’t have it x-rayed.  That little incident slowed my training down, and made the next couple of weeks a little difficult due to soreness.  About five weeks before the marathon, we had a 20 mile run planned. It actually went very well, and I think if I had to run the marathon that very day, it would have been a good run.  After that, two weeks of very busy late nights at work completely blew apart my final weeks of training.  With two weeks to go, we went out for a 21 miler.  The conditions were nearly perfect.  The temperature started in the mid 40’s (F) as we headed out in the pre-dawn light.  The first bothersome event was that my new Adidas shoe was causing a great deal of pain where the tongue of the shoe meets the foot.  The tongue on these shoes is minimal, and the underlying tendon in my foot was being rubbed, causing the pain.  At around the 10 mile mark, I ran to my house to change shoes, while my ingenue marathon training partner waited a few minutes.  That done, my foot felt better.  We continued on, but at 17 miles a familiar and very annoying feeling sprang up in my calves and quads.  I was starting to get cramps in my leg muscles.  I am quite a sight when this happens, taking on the stride of John Cleese of Monty Python fame doing his silly walks sketch.  Not so funny for me, though, and I could not continue.  My training partner was doing well, and continued on to finish her 21 miler, the longest she had ever gone in one run.  I, on the other hand, hobbled back to our home base, unable to run, and in pain.  After walking the mile back, my legs did start to calm down, but the day and the run was shot.  I was very concerned that this might be my fate at the marathon in two weeks time, and I seriously considered not starting.  I had a chat with one of my marathon advisers, an experienced marathoner named Brandon, with whom I regularly run Saturday mornings.  With one week to go, I really didn’t get in the usual taper, because the three weeks before were so poor.  Brandon said he felt I could slow the pace and make it through the race.  He said it would be a shame to not run after putting in the many weeks of preparation.  With that encouragement, I started the marathon the following Sunday.

I thought about just doing half.  The official half marathon had closed weeks earlier, so I couldn’t drop down as a registered runner.  I felt if I kept my pace reasonable, around a 9 minute mile, things would be okay.  I did feel quite fine through the first half, and the Philadelphia marathon route is a very nice one.  It starts along Ben Franklin Parkway, with thousands of spectators lining the start, and Mayor Nutter giving hi-fives to runners as they pass the start line.  The route goes through Old City to Delaware Avenue, down to South Philly, then up along South Street to Chestnut and through Center City.  Crowds with clever (or not-so-clever) signs cheer on the runners.  The frat boys at Drexel bang on pots and shout out to the runners.  The route winds along to the Belmont Plateau, and past the Please Touch museum, then down hill to West River Drive along the Schuykill river and back to the Philadelphia Art Museum at the half.  At this point, the runners doing the half peel off and head to their finish line along the Ben Franklin Parkway, which is where I should have headed.  Thinking I could muster on, and not feeling bad, plus averaging around 8’45” to that point, I kept going, making the turn around the front of the museum to head out Kelly Drive towards Manayunk.  It is a route I have done six times before, sometimes suffering with leg cramps and having to walk, sometimes cruising through, and once, doing well enough to make my Boston qualifier.  This time, at mile 16.5, the cramps set in.  I tried to slow down and keep running, but it was just impossible.  I moved off the course, and like some soldier going AWOL in an old movie, removed my number from my chest.  I started walking back towards the start line, which was about 3 miles away.  I should have quit as I turned in front of the museum, so the walk would have been much shorter.  After walking for 5 minutes, my legs felt better, and seeing all those other runners streaming by me I put on my number again, got back on the course, and started to run.  Well, that didn’t last very long.  I got about a half mile when my legs seized up again.  This time I decided to quit for good.  I moved off the course, this time leaving my number on, and walked back towards the start.  Shortly, a volunteer driving a golf cart-like vehicle, already carrying two other runners, stopped to pick me up.  I got in, and the young man next to me offered me the Mylar blanket he had around his shoulders.  He was very thin and fit-looking, not the kind to quit a marathon I thought.  But he had a similar problem to mine, and had to stop.  He insisted I take the blanket against my protests, as he appeared to have far less insulation than me.  He wouldn’t take it back, so I kept it.  Shortly after getting in the cart, I had to get right back out.  My legs were seizing up, and there was no way to stretch them out in the cramped seat.  So I was resigned to the long walk back.  Along the way, I passed another fellow DNFer, about my age, who had quit due to ankle pain.  As I walked I thought about my justification for stopping and not mustering on.  I felt that I had made the right decision, to not hurt myself further, recover, and live to run another marathon another day.

I got back to the art museum, and made my way around the outside of the course to the bag pickup.  Several people told me “way to go”, and “good job” as I made my way through the crowd, giving me the feeling of a complete charlatan.  It was crowded, and I didn’t want to take the time to explain, but I simply put my head down and decided it would be best to not recognize these well wishers.  I made it into the bag area having to enter through an exit guarded by police, since the security around marathons is way up these days.  Once I picked up my bag, I had my cell phone.  I phoned my wife, who had been monitoring my progress on her phone.  Up to that point, I was pretty calm and collected.  As I spoke to her, though, I completely broke down, as the emotion of quitting hit me.  The rational me had left as the feeling of failure overcame.  I like to be seen as the invincible warrior, not the vulnerable person I am.

Since then, I have recovered, both my body and my senses.  I have heard many stories from my experienced marathoner friends of times they, too, have had to quit for various reasons.  I have plans for a half marathon in March, my annual shot at Caesar Rodney in Wilmington, and I am trying to decide which marathon to sign up for in the fall.  I think I want to do an early October marathon, since the training doesn’t run into the problem with short days and the conversion to standard time.  Of course, I may piggy back Philadelphia onto that, since I will have done the training after all….  In the end, it really wasn’t about the pace, it was about the training, and getting it right.  Yes, the pace is important, but not if the training is missing.

 

 

A Gibbous Moon Doth Shine

As I ran this evening along the path beside the lovely Cooper River, a shining gibbous moon was on the rise.  It seemed to pull me on, moving with me as I ran, never getting closer nor farther.  More than half, but less than full, it presented a beautiful picture in the sky. I got spellbound as I ran, but coming up to a busy intersection, I was snapped back to full alert state.  It was a subtle reminder, though, how the seasons are changing. There I was at 7:30 in the evening, and already the sun had set and the moon was clearly visible.   It has been warm this week, the warmest week of the summer.  I’ve been finishing my runs soaking wet from sweat.  When I take off my socks I can wring out a cup of sweat between the two of them.

The sound of cicadas would be impossible to describe to someone who had never heard one.  It is an unmistakable sound, though, and so typical for this time of year.  It is never one cicada, it is a crowd of male cicadas sending their messages to females that they are present and ready to mate.  The loudness of the song, and its constancy are remarkable.  As I ran along I listened for the much more delightful sound of a cricket chirping, but my search was unsuccessful.  If there was one it was drowned out by the blaring cicadas.

We are in the last throws of summer.  As the evening sky comes earlier, I am reminded that soon I will need to wear a head lamp.  While a definite safety feature, there is not much that is fun about wearing a headlamp.  It creates a sharply demarcated cone of visibility around my feet and a few yards in front of me, but shuts out the rest of the view.  Early morning runs on the weekends, also, will be dark, although made more pleasant by the lack of traffic compared with the evening weekday run.

Eating in the summer is always fun.  The fresh vegetables from local farms, the peaches, the tomatoes, and the small but significant harvest from our backyard garden make summer meals a festival.  My favorite, the blueberries, seemed to last particularly long this year.  I admit to being a blueberry addict.  I bought several ten pound boxes of them at the height of summer, and washed and froze them for my habit year round.

With colder days and longer nights, there is also an urge to indulge.  Football games with beer and nachos, colder temperatures driving up the appestat, and the diminishing supply of fresh garden produce yielding to potatoes, squash and other filling foods makes for a challenge against fitness.  With a marathon coming up in November, and my desire to be fit into the New Year, I must redouble my efforts at this time to stay the course, get in the runs, watch the calories, and not yield to temptations.  On the positive side, though, my hops are ready to harvest, and there will be another good Backyard Homebrew in the making in the near future.

Three Times the Fun

NFL news today is not about the game, but about lawsuits, contracts and other off-season minutia. Baseball is now mid-season, and in the hot days of summer, it really is a pastime. NHL hockey is done for the year, after the LA Kings won the Stanley Cup. Los Angeles is a real natural for a top hockey team, with its long tradition of ice sports. The NBA finished its season last month with the San Antonio Spurs taking the top spot, another city known as a hot spot for development of its winning team’s future players.

If like me, you are not a big fan of these big sports, this may be your weekend. We have the quarter finals of World Cup Soccer (or football), the finals of Wimbledon, and the start of the Tour de France. For me, its an opportunity to spend some serious couch potato time glued to the set, ignoring the lawn, and watching my favorite professional athletes battle it out.

World Cup play began Thursday, June 12, when Brazil took on Croatia, beating them 3-1 in a game that showed the Brazilian team’s typical style of play, non-linear, dance-like and taking advantage of their ability to confuse the other team.  The World Cup has exceeded all expectations so far.  The threats of protests melted as play got under way, and the matches got under the locals’ skin.  The venues, while some had Amazonian jungle conditions, were all in good shape and seemingly prepared for the crowds.  The fans have come from around the globe to cheer on their teams, and it appears that Brazil has played excellent host to the visitors.  My USA team rose to the challenges facing them and managed to win one, tie one and lose one in the first round, making out to the knockout round.  There, they got knocked out by an organized and efficient Belgian squad, but they performed admirably, gave us some thrilling moments, and showed that the USA team can play soccer in the world’s stadium.  Other matches of the first round have been equally exciting, with strong showings by such teams as Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, and Greece.  I love the fact that World Cup Football brings together such widely placed teams from around the globe, along with their cheering fans, in the same stadium.  No other sport does this, and its a great boost for mankind.

At the same time, Wimbledon started play Monday, June 23, and we are now in the last two days.  While the women’s singles play is finished as I write this, the men’s singles will be tomorrow, and should be a real classic battle.  Roger Federer, who has been struggling lately, and did not make it out of the second round at Wimbledon last year, will take on Novak Djokovic.  Federer first played Wimbledon 15 years ago, and has taken the top prize seven times.  He has mastered every aspect of singles tennis, can prevail on any surface, and has a style of play that is efficient and surprising, when he whips out a passing shot that does something that seems physically impossible.  His opponent in the finals tomorrow, Djokavic, is also an all-around player, currently rated number one in the world.  He is younger (32 vs 27) and possibly fitter than Federer, and he has proven himself able to beat Federer.  The record favors Federer, though, with Federer leading 18-16 in head-to-head matches with Djokavic.  The match starts at 9:00 AM EDT, and should be very exciting to watch.

The third of the three big sports this weekend is cycling, and the opening stage of the Tour de France.  While one might expect this race to take place in France, and mostly it does, it starts this year in Leeds, England with the riders doing a 45 minute slow paced tour through the town before heading out to the countryside as they race to Harrogate.  Usually, the tour starts the first day with a short time trial, but this year the race starts with a 190.5 km stage made for the sprinters.  As I write, the finish is unfolding with the teams of the sprinters driving the race at unreal speeds, with the pace line of the teams straining to carry their sprinter to the line first.  Heart in throat I watch, seeing if the riders can hold their lines, go through turns fearlessly, not touch the brakes or the wheel of the rider in front.   As it happened, Mark Cavendish was not able to hold things together and wound up hitting the pavement in a high speed crash, denying him the thrill of winning this stage in his hometown in front of the royal family.  Instead, the honor went to German Marcel Kittel of team Giant-Shimano.  In the odd world of cycling teams, this team is a Dutch team sponsored by Giant bicycles, a Chinese company which does have a manufacturing facility in the Netherlands, and Shimano, a Japanese maker of bicycle components.  The race will continue two more days in England before moving across the English Channel to the French mainland.  Watching the tour can be rewarding even if you are not a cycling fan, since the coverage from the helicopters and motorcycles shows the amazing and beautiful scenery of the route.

So, it’s time for me to go watch Argentina take on Belgium.  Maybe Messi will show us some of his brilliant moves and score a goal.  Happy watching, sports fans.

Semi-Marathon International de Nice

 

A beautiful day in Nice, France, 25 April 2014.

A beautiful day in Nice, France, 25 April 2014.

I got the idea to run this race about three years ago. I was looking for a way to have a travel adventure combined with a race. I thought it would be nicer to my wife to pick a half marathon so she would not bear the burden of my recovery from a marathon, which is not always pretty. After searching on-line, I found this race, which seemed ideal. It is run right around the time of my birthday, is in a beautiful location, and it bills itself as international. Perfect! So, what took me three years to do it, and how did it finally go?

The race is run late in April, and when I got the idea, I was also signed up for Boston. So that year was out. Then it took another year to really decide to do it. Finally, it took about six months of planning for the time off, to figure out what was needed to sign up, and make plans for the whole trip. The website for the race, http://www.nicesemimarathon.com/v14/ did not have an updated site until around October of 2013, and then it was still French only. About a month later, the English version was up, although the instructions for filling out the registration were only in French. Not too challenging, though, as they were quite clear. The race required a doctor’s certificate stating I was fit to run, but none was provided on the website. If you are a French runner and belong to a running club, apparently this is required for the club, and only your membership is needed. If you are a foreigner, you need the certificate. I was able to find one on the Paris Marathon website, had my friend, an internist, certify me, and sent it in by email. Voila, I got confirmation I was registered. The cost was 17€ plus 2€ service fee.

As it turned out, this year’s version fell one day after my birthday, my 60th, so it could not have come at a better moment. Yes, an age bracket change. We booked tickets to Nice planning to arrive on the 25th of April, to give a day for orientation before the race. Never having been to Nice, we did not know the city layout, or where would be best to stay. After a bit of a search on line, and finding out a couple of hotels we tried first were sold out, we reserved a room for three nights in the Best Western Hotel New York Nice, a long name I know, but centrally located and not far from the start of the race.

Today, finding out information about how to get from place to place is relatively easy. On-line sources are plentiful, and one can usually tell the reliable sources. Keys to look for are good grammar, a recent date, and a reliable blog or website devoted to travel. We were able to discover the bus from the airport at Nice into town cost 6€, and there are two buses depending on where you want to wind up, the 98 and the 99. More interesting is that with the help of Google maps, one can plot the walk to the hotel, know exactly how far it is, and even see street views so the landmarks are recognizable. This is all part of the fun of planning a trip to unknown places. We easily got through airport customs, made our way to the bus station at the airport, got tickets, and were delivered to Gare Central, the main train station in the center of Nice. From there we were able to walk to our hotel, which took about 20 minutes, along the Av. Jean Médecin. We were pleasantly greeted at the hotel by a desk clerk named Nella, who registered us and help us get further oriented. Our hotel room was very attractive, and had large glass doors leading out onto a small balcony. Across from us was a Monoprix supermarket, and caddy corner was a very large outdoor café and bar.

After getting situated in the room, we walked towards the old part of Nice where the expo was, in order to pick up my number. The expo was small, and outdoors under tents, in the oldest part of Nice. This is now a spot for shops and restaurants. A large flower mart took up the center of the main pedestrian street, and restaurants and bars with plenty of outdoor seating occupied either side. There were also many small shops selling local specialties. One was entirely devoted to sardines in cans, with many variations.

Picking up my number.  Dossard is French for bib.

Picking up my number. Dossard is French for bib.

The people manning the tents for the expo were extraordinarily pleasant and helpful, and it was no problem to find my number.  I then went to the next tent to pick up my goodie bag with my T-shirt and the usual things they add, like advertisements for other races, and samples of sports bars and drink.  One odd standout, though, was a large jar of Tikka Masala, which is an Indian sauce of tomatoes, lemon, coriander, and other spices used to make curry.  While this may not be typical pre-race food, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, it does point out that the sponsors do get to show their wares.  We planned to enjoy it after we returned home.

After picking up my bib and Tee, we wandered through the old part of Nice.  We were hungry, and while late in the day in Nice, we were still on eastern standard time.  So, we stopped at a fish restaurant called “La Grande Voile”.  Our dinner there was just satisfactory.  I cannot recommend this restaurant, based on the fact that the waitstaff made themselves very scarce even though we were one of only a few couples dining at the time, and also they brought the wrong fish.  But, my appetizer, a bowl of mussels, was quite good.

Mussels at La Grande Voile.

Mussels at La Grande Voile.

When we returned to our hotel that evening we were just amazed that our children had arranged for a bottle of Champagne to be brought to our room. Accompanying it was a card wishing me happy birthday and good luck.  It seems we have taught our children well!

A very nice bottle of Champagne delivered to our room.

A very nice bottle of Champagne delivered to our room.

We went across the street to the grocery store, bought some strawberries, and sat out on our little balcony, enjoying the view, and our bottle of Champagne.  I am aware that eating mussels and drinking Champagne before a race may seem foolhardy, but I thought I would at least have a day to recover before actually running.

The following day, Saturday, we awoke to warm sunshine streaking through our window.  Since this was the day before the race I wanted to get in an easy run to keep the muscles toned.  I put on my shorts, a shirt, and my running shoes and headed out to the large path along the ocean for a practice run.  It seems I was not the only one.  About a dozen or so other runners, some with Semi-marathon shirts on, were doing the same.  We ran along the Promenade des Anglais, the last half of the semi-marathon to be run the next day, where signs were being set up for the race, portable toilets were being set in place, and meanwhile the usual beach activity was still going on.  Artists were setting up their stands to display their scenes of Nice, beach denizens were hanging out chatting with each other, and, along the surf, many surf-casting fishermen and women had their lines in the water.

The day of the race came fairly quickly, although the race starts at a very reasonable 9:30 AM.  Our hotel had breakfast for twelve euro, not a small sum for cereal, pastries, ham and slices of cheese.  Normally, my wife and I would buy the same from the market, and have breakfast in our room, but for various reasons we didn’t get set, so I had the hotel breakfast.  Then, it was time to do the usual pre-race preparation.  I got on my shorts and singlet, pinned my number to the singlet, and got on my socks and running shoes.  In addition, I put on my rain jacket, since it had already started drizzling under heavy clouds.

In front of our hotel, ready to head down to the start.

In front of our hotel, ready to head down to the start.

Walking down to the start, we passed through the beautiful Place Massena, bordered on both sides with spouting fountains from large rectangular paved areas.  Seven tall poles holding up sitting figures represent seven continents which are lit from inside with colors that change, representing conversations.  The centerpiece, a very large (7 meter tall)  nude statue of Apollo surrounded by his planetary helpers, was a controversial piece when first displayed and spent some time on the outskirts of town until it was moved back in 2011.  Finally, the buildings behind the statue are elegant, stately and make a striking backdrop.

Place Masséna in Nice.

Place Masséna in Nice.

We got to the start area, and got oriented.  With some time left before the start, I went for a brief warmup run.  The crowd grew, as the runners and their families gathered.  It was a typical pre-race scene, with lines at the portable toilets, lots of milling around, and at one end of the area, a couple of trainer types were leading an exercise routine to music.

The parcours of the race.

The parcours of the race.

The total starting the race, including both the semi-marathon and the 10K, which started together, was about 5,300.  The 10K runners ran the first half of the semi-marathon course which circled through the streets of Nice.  Then the semi-marathon course continued out along the Promenade des Anglais to the Nice airport, turned and headed back along the same route to the finish line.

At the start, getting ready to join the throng.

At the start, getting ready to join the throng.

The race got underway in typical fashion, with the blast of a horn.  I made a small tactical error in not moving closer to the front for the start.  As with many popular races, the crowd toward the back is not really going for time.  With the narrow streets and large number of runners, that meant the pace when I crossed the start line was slow, and with a tightly packed group it was difficult to move ahead. Along with a number of other runners in the same predicament, I had to move to the sidewalks to get my pace up and move ahead of the crowd. This presented a problem with light poles, onlookers, and a few other obstructions. The runners were enjoying themselves, though, and as we went through the tunnel under the central train station, there were a lot of hoots and yells which echoed back. The first five kilometers passed back close to the start, then the second five were a loop through the eastern part of town, again heading back to the start. At this point, the 10 K runners peeled off to their finish, as the rest of us 21.1 K runners headed out the Promenade des Anglais for the second half of our race, a flat run out to the Nice airport and back. The finish was deceptive. As one got closer to the end, a large, inflated arch over the road looked like the end, but it was just an advertising banner. The real finish line was on a slight turn toward the ocean then along a carpeted finish over the line.

The stars of this race were the Kenyans.  A group of six Kenyan men finished in 1:01:31, 1:01:32, 1:01:33, 1:01:34, 1:01:36 and 1:01:38, the first of whom was Kennedy Kipyego.  The first woman to finish was also Kenyan, Janet Kisya, in 1:10:59.  Both of these runners ran personal bests in this race.

Of course, I didn’t see much of them, although the out-and-back nature of the second half of the race did give us commoners a glimpse of the front runners as they whizzed by heading toward the finish line.  All the other runners cheered these champions on as they sped by.

The last power surge, heading toward the finish line.

The last power surge, heading toward the finish line.

As races often go, the last few miles, or in this case, kilometers, seemed to never end.  Finally, I could see the 20 K marker and new the line was near.  Racing in kilometers is great; the last kilometer is shorter than a mile!  As I crossed the line, I heard the announcer call out “États-Unis”, and I knew it was for me, since there were no others of my countrymen around me.  I raised my arms as I crossed the line, pleased to have made my goal of running this race.  My finishing time was a bit slow, which I justified by the slow start and the long plane trip to get here.  Never mind, though, I was quite happy and satisfied.  My ever-supportive wife, Kathleen, caught me right at the finish.

Just after finishing, catching my breath.

Just after finishing, catching my breath, arms akimbo apparently in the style of the race.

I was a bit dehydrated, dripping with sweat, and a little shaky.  I drank down one bottle of water and most of a second as I passed through the finish area and collected my medal.  I think the medals mean a lot for a marathon, perhaps a little less for a half marathon, but I was quite pleased to have this memento.

Representing my home club at the Semi-marathon International de Nice 2014.

Representing my home club at the Semi-marathon International de Nice 2014.

As my wife and I walked together out of the race area and back to our hotel,  I told her all about the race course, the challenges and the beauty of the course.  We then started to plan our afternoon of sightseeing.  We headed back to the Place Masséna and on to our hotel, saying au revoir to monsieur Apollo as we left the area.

Apollo's back, passing on our way back to the hotel.

Apollo’s back, on our way back to the hotel.

No Meat Michele

Michele running her marathon PR this year.

Michele running her marathon PR this year.

 

 

 

Our running club, the South Jersey Athletic Club, has a lot of running stars.  Some are stars because they simply outperform everyone in their field.  Some are stars because of their longevity in running, with one of our group about to run Boston for the twenty seventh time.  Michele doesn’t fit either of these categories.  Her stardom comes from her personality, her drive, and her steady improvement as a blossoming runner.   She first introduced herself to our group about five years ago, for our Sunday morning runs.  She wasn’t fast, and she didn’t usually go the long route.  But that changed as she kept with her training and dedication to becoming a better runner.  She ran in the cold, ran in the rain, in the heat, early before the sun came up, and after dark, carrying a light to avoid potholes.  After our Sunday runs, a group of us will gather at the local Starbucks to chat, joke around, talk about upcoming races, and make the big decisions regarding club activities.  Michele is an active participant in this group, not least because she often plies us with homemade pastries, such as biscotti, or blueberry-spelt muffins, to refuel after our long runs.  Oh, and she is also a No Meat Athlete.  The term comes from Matt Frazier, who writes a blog by the same name and has developed a large following.

Michele, warming up after a cold run at the end of March.  Whatever happened to March going out like a lamb?

Michele, warming up after a cold run at the end of March. Whatever happened to March going out like a lamb?

I was curious what led Michele to become a vegetarian, and how she felt it helped her in her athleticism.  I also wanted to know her secret for dropping over thirty minutes from her previous marathon PR when she ran the Shamrock Marathon this year.  I put to her ten questions, and she was kind enough to answer them in a very thoughtful and serious manner.  Here are the questions and her answers:

 

1.  I assume you were not always a vegetarian.  Why did you decide to go vegetarian?
Short answer:  Ethical reasons.
For as long as I can remember, I was always an animal lover.  No one in my family is a vegetarian, and meat was as much a staple in our daily diets as I imagine any other typical American family. Lunch was always some sort of lunch meat style sandwich and dinner was always centered around some kind of meat. From a young age, eating animals never quite sat right with me, but I was at the mercy of my mother, who prepared all of our meals.  When I was 14, I simply decided one day that it was time I made the switch to a vegetarian life.  I stopped eating meat “cold turkey” (Brandon would love that pun). Within a year, it was just second nature to me.  After the first few months, I really never missed it.
2.  Which came first, no meat or athlete?
No meat.  I was certainly not an athlete in high school, although I occasionally pretended to be one, joining the lacrosse, softball, and soccer teams (I was terrible at both of these), and even cheer-leading one year. When I discovered running, I realized that I prefer sports that don’t involve much hand-eye coordination.
3.  What special dietary considerations do you need to know to get all of your nutritional needs met?
The two most popular (and annoying) questions most vegetarians are asked by non-vegetarians are “So, if you don’t eat meat, what do you eat?” and “How do you get enough protein?” Contrary to popular belief, protein is not an issue for most vegetarians and even vegans. A person eating a well-balanced diet, full of a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes, will satisfy most of his or her dietary requirements.

There are only two exceptions that I know of that vegetarians and vegans should be a little more conscious of:

Vitamin D – important for bone and muscle health. Vitamin D is most plentiful in non-meat animal sources such eggs and cheese, as well as through exposure to the sun. A vegan would have to rely mostly on sun exposure, fortified foods such as nutritional yeast (an interesting type of food I have only recently discovered, most often used as a substitute for cheese, sprinkled on food or in sauces), fortified cereals, or supplements.
Vitamin B-12 – important for the health of the nervous system, as well as making red blood cells. The daily requirement of B12 for a healthy person is quite low, and the body can store it, so a vegetarian could easily get enough through sources such as eggs, milk, and yogurt. However, for vegans, it is a little more difficult, and one would have to rely on fortified foods such as fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, or supplements.

At this point, I still eat some animal products (occasional eggs and dairy products), and have never suffered any symptoms suggestive of a Vitamin D or B12 deficiency. As I move more towards a complete plant based or vegan diet, I am starting to pay a little more attention to these essential nutrients.

 

4.  When did you start running as a sport, and how did you get started?
Aside from the forced 2 miles we had to run every day for high school lacrosse, which I loathed, I really started running in the spring 2009.  Prior to that, my running history would go something like this:  Spring time arrives.  I make a vow to run every day.  I go out on day 1 and try to run a mile as fast as I can.  It is awful.  I do this 2-3 days in a row, and then give up because by then I’m hurting and it’s clear that I can’t run.  Swear off running.  Following year, start again.

In 2009 I was gearing up for the same old routine, but I happened to come across a clinic to train for your first 5K thought the Cherry Hill Recreation Department.  I think it was a 6 or 8 week clinic, and it was run by the Cherry Hill West track coach, Nick Mitidieri. Coach Nick was also Brandon’s high school track coach, and I’ve since bumped into him with his track team at some of our No Frills races.  My first week training with Coach Nick I learned the most important thing – how to pace.  That first night I ran a mile and a half and amazingly felt good at the end, much unlike my previous 1 mile solo runs.
5.  What was your first race?  How did it go?
My first race was at the end of that training clinic.  It was called the Run Your Own Life 5K (which no longer exists).  My main goal was to run the entire thing without stopping to walk.  I met that goal.  My finishing time was 31:56.  My husband was there cheering me on at the finish line, which was just amazing.  It was really the first time anyone had come to watch me in any of my sports, and it was such a great feeling having him there, supporting me.  After the race I could not wait for my next 5K!  I was, however, afraid I’d fall off the wagon, so I made a point to sign up for one 5K per month.  I knew if I had a race on the calendar, I’d keep training.
6.  What influenced you to try to run a marathon?
99% of my influence came from being around other runners, namely, SJAC members.  Before joining the club, the “marathon” was kind of some mystical fantasy in the back of my mind, which I thought maybe, just maybe, I could accomplish one day.  I gave myself a rough time frame of 5 years to complete my first marathon.  When I first joined SJAC in the fall of 2009 I was training for my first Half Marathon, and did many of my long runs with Sue Hamilton.  At the time she was training for the Philadelphia Marathon.  Over the weeks of running with Sue (and Heather), I realized that she and I ran similar pace, and seemed rather similar in our running abilities, and it made me think that if she could run a marathon, why couldn’t I?  That was when I first started thinking more seriously about the marathon.
7.  What was your first marathon?  Do you recall how it felt to finish?
Ultimately, my first marathon was in March 2011 (less than 2 years after my first 5K!).  It was the National Marathon in Washington, DC (I think this race was recently sold to the Rock N Roll series).  My time was 4:34:36, which remained my PR until my recent marathon.

Finishing was quite emotional.  I felt decent most of the race, until about mile 22, when I started a lot of walking/running.  In the last quarter mile, running up the hill to the finish line, all kinds of things started freaking out in my legs, and I think it was only the sight of the beautiful finish line that got me up that hill and kept me running at that point.  I don’t remember exactly how I felt when I finished, but I do remember being on the verge of tears, when suddenly Tom appeared before me, snapping me back to reality.

Side note about Tom:  He was, once again, a great supporter.  Spectating a marathon can be a little challenging, especially navigating around an unfamiliar city to hit as many mile points as possible.  He managed to make his way around the Metro and see me at a few different points along the race, including the finish.  Later in the day, when we were back at the hotel and I was attempting to find a position which didn’t hurt, he said to me, “Man, watching a marathon is really exhausting.”  Really?
8.  You recently ran a marathon PR by a huge margin.  How much was the margin, and to what do you owe this superior performance?
My first marathon remained my PR until this March, when I ran the Shamrock Marathon in 4:01:58, making the exact margin 32:38.  I did a lot of things this past year which I attribute to my PR.  2013 started out with me being injured and having to back out of the Shamrock Marathon.  My injuries were mostly the result of over-training. I found myself unable to do most forms of exercise.  I certainly couldn’t run, but also couldn’t bike or even do the elliptical.  The only form of cardio exercise I could tolerate was swimming.  At this point, I already was not happy with my weight and was terrified where my weight would go without being able to run.  This finally gave me the kick in the ass I needed to get some things in order.  I started paying better attention to my diet, focusing more on whole foods.  I also hired a personal trainer, who really seemed to appreciate the fact that I was an athlete, more so than most of his clients (his words, not mine) and pushed me really hard, changing up my usual gym routine, and adding in a ton  more core work.  The concentration on diet and change in exercise routine led me to lose about 18 pounds over the course of the year.  The weight loss just naturally adds some speed, and I found the cross training and increased core strength really helped my endurance.  Towards the end of the marathon, of course my legs felt beat up, but I never felt like I had to stop to walk or hit “the wall.” In my race pictures, even in the later miles, I’m still standing tall, not slouching from a weak, fatigued core like I often found myself in race pictures in the past.

The other thing was that through being injured, I really learned the difference between general soreness from training hard and actual pain.  I learned to listen to my body when something wasn’t right, and addressed those issues right away, before they turn into full-blown injuries.  I still battle a little bit with my IT band, but thankfully it hasn’t totally given out on me in quite some time, and I continue to work on strengthening the muscles in my hips, where the ITB issues originate.
9.  What keeps you running?
I love that I am truly only competing with myself.  When I played team sports, I always felt bad that I wasn’t good, like I was letting my team down.  In running, there isn’t that pressure, only whatever amount of pressure I want to put on myself. There is always another goal to achieve, whether that is to do a particular race, or to get a PR in a specific distance.  Running has also become an integral part of my social life, knowing that I have a weekly date with running friends. Everyone in the running community is supportive of one another, and there seems to me a mutual respect among all runners, regardless of abilities.  I am often amazed when other athletes, many of whom I look up to and would go to for advice, have come to ME for advice. There’s no competition or one-upsmanship – everyone simply wants their fellow athletes to succeed, whatever that means to them.
10.  If someone wanted to become a No Meat Athlete like yourself, what would be your advice? What would be the benefit?
It’s hard for me to say how one should transition from eating meat to not doing so, since I’ve been doing it for so long. But I would suggest perhaps making small changes. Cut out one form of animal product, for example, red meat, and go from there. One should focus one’s diet on eating more whole foods, eliminating most processed. As you get more into the plant based lifestyle, you can be more adventurous. Trying new ingredients that previously sounded too weird to try in a recipe start to become not so scary. (I discussed nutritional yeast in #3 above. This is something I avoided in recipes for years. Finally I took a chance, figuring if it appears in so many recipes, it can’t be that awful. Now it’s a staple in my pantry).

There are so many resources for plant based nutrition for both athletes and non-athletes. My personal favorites are:

The Thrive Diet:  This diet was created by vegan former pro-Ironman triathlete, Brenden Brazier. Brazier takes the vegan diet to the next level, by concentrating on foods that deliver the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of stress to the body. The basic principal is the fuel the body with nutrients that are easily absorbed and easily digested foods. If the body is spending less energy in the actual process of digesting the food, one has more energy for training. I have 2 of Brazier’s books, and follow several of his recipes every week.

Oh She Glows Blog and Cookbook: www.ohsheglows.com. I discovered this blog about 6 months ago. It’s not geared towards athletes specifically, but all recipes are vegan and made with natural foods. The creator of the blog, Angela Liddon, recently released her first cookbook in March 2014. I pre-ordered it and have already made at least a dozen recipes from the book.

And of course, how could I answer an entire 10 questions without mentioning the No Meat Athlete website itself: www.nomeatathlete.com. This blog creator, Matt Frazier, also recently released a book, but I have not checked it out yet. While No Meat Athlete (NMA) has some recipes, the blog is designed more as just a general discussion of the NMA lifestyle. Lately I’ve been listening to Matt’s podcasts (available on iTunes) during some of my solo runs.

Michele atop the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (see my previous blog, "Rocky II, It's a Knockout")

Michele atop the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (see my previous blog, “Rocky II, It’s a Knockout”)

Rocky II: It’s a knockout!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

At the start of Rocky II, in front of the Running Company in Haddonfield

At the start of Rocky II, in front of the Running Company in Haddonfield

 

Haddonfield, N.J.  – Last Sunday morning, fifteen members of the South Jersey Athletic Club gathered in front of the Haddonfield Running Company for the start of Rocky II, a point to point run from Haddonfield to the finish at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  It was a perfect day for this type of run.  It was bit chilly at the start, around 37 degrees F, with the sun just starting to peak over the buildings on King’s Highway.  The runners stowed their gear in the bag carrier’s car and prepared to get going.  The bag carrier, Craig,  was the son of the organizer, and had offered his time in exchange for his Dad’s gratitude and the promise of brunch with the group.

The club, known as SJAC, has a usual Sunday run which is a loop of about 13 miles.  Every once in a while, though, a different run is proposed to add some variety and challenge.  The first Rocky Run was just about a year ago, so it was time for the sequel.  The route this year was very similar to last year’s route.  It follows the usual Sunday morning route up to Route 130, which is a busy highway on the edge of Camden.  This year, we went across 130 and past the Camden County Golf Academy, formerly known as the Cooper River driving range.  This has a sixty station, double-decker driving range where one is expected to hit the ball into the water.  Once merely a driving range, it is now home to Rutgers Camden’s golf program.  Moving on, we ran along Admiral Wilson Boulevard, where the memory of strip clubs and cheap motels, torn down for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 is fading.  Now, it is a rarely used park, with pretty rose bushes lining the boulevard, and a wide paved curving path along which few bikes or runners pass.  The park ends on a narrow sidewalk at the edge of the road, which takes one in to Camden City proper.

Leaving Cooper Hospital, and heading for the Ben Franklin Bridge

Leaving Cooper Hospital, and heading for the Ben Franklin Bridge

As we did last year, at the 7 mile mark we again went right through the main floor of Cooper Hospital, stopping for a restroom

Up the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway.

Up the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway.

break and water.  Then it was on to the Ben Franklin Bridge.  The road through Camden goes past the Rand Transportation Center.  Here, the PATCO line into Philadelphia, the River Line to Trenton, and the New Jersey Transit buses all come together.  It is a busy place, even on a Sunday morning, and we got a few amused stares by the locals as we ran by.  Nearby is the Walt Whitman house, where the famous poet spent the last eight years of his life.  We did not run by his house, but may on future editions of the Rocky Run (Rocky III, the Leaves of Grass edition!

 

 

The first real challenge of the run was the stairs up to the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway.  Three flights one must ascend to get to the walkway, and there were a few groans from our group, although nothing too serious.  As mentioned, we had a beautiful day for this run, and the sky was deep blue, a perfect backdrop for the cityscape of Philadelphia.  The bridge rises for three fourths of a mile before it turns down again.  We stopped as a group near the apex for a photo, and got a nice passerby to take the shot.

Near the top of the walkway, Ben Franklin Bridge, looking toward Philadelphia

Near the top of the walkway, Ben Franklin Bridge, looking toward Philadelphia

At the base of the bridge on the Philadelphia side we took a sharp u-turn down to “Old City”, and made the second change from last year’s route.  This was to take us by another landmark, the Betsy Ross House.  We took another brief stop to document our run.

In front of the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Philadelphia

In front of the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Philadelphia

Then, it was on past other landmarks in the city, the Arch Street Friends Meeting House, the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, and, of course, Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  We continued down Sixth Street all the way to Christian Street in South Philly, home of the Italian Market.  Rocky Balboa made this spot famous in several scenes in his movies.  We didn’t try to replicate his movie runs.  In fact, to that, one would have to have magical powers.  If you’d like to see what it would take, writer Dan McQuade published an article in Philadelphia Magazine exploring the theoretical route.

After passing my favorite pizza and steak place in the Italian Market, Lorenzo’s, we kept on running to 16th Street, where we headed north all the way to the Ben Franklin Parkway.  The goal of the run was finally in view.  The Parkway is a great stretch of road, flanked by various museums, and lined by the flags of 109 Countries.  At the top of the Parkway, the Philadelphia Art Museum is a beautiful architectural achievement in its own right.  Situated where it is, braced on either side by Kelly Drive (formerly East River Drive) and West River Drive, and at the base of Fairmount Park, it is the epicenter of weekend outdoor activities in Philadelphia.  West River Drive is closed to automobiles on weekend mornings during daylight savings time.  Kelly Drive has Philly’s iconic Boat House Row, not just pretty to look at, but the base of a very active rowing community.  Every weekend, some type of race or organized activity is going on, centered around the Parkway and the art museum.  This day was no exception.  The first running of the Hot Chocolate 15k run was wrapping up as we finished our run.

We ran straight up the middle of the Ben Franklin Parkway to the art museum.  Starting at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, along the way, we passed the Parkway’s most famous fountain, the Swann Memorial Fountain, or the Fountain of the Three Rivers.  As we got close to the museum, we got funneled through the staging are of the Hot Chocolate race, and had to clamber over the barriers to get to our final goal.  I found an open barrier so I didn’t have to embarrass myself trying to climb over, but others in the group were much more agile.  Finally, it was up the steps to the art museum entrance.

 

Philadelphia Art Museum, and the "Rocky Steps"

Philadelphia Art Museum, and the “Rocky Steps”

Everyone made it to the top!

Everyone made it to the top!

Of course, what would a trip to the venerable art museum be without a stop at the statue of one of Philadelphia’s most famous citizens, Rocky Balboa himself.  Well maybe he wasn’t really a “citizen”, and I guess, maybe  he wasn’t “real” but he sure brings out people from everywhere to pose by his statue.

Giving the old Rocky pose.

Giving the old Rocky pose.

After we finished the run, we reconnoitered with a plan to have brunch at the famous Sabrina’s Cafe on Callowhill Street, about a mile from the art museum.  When we got there, the place was teeming with people with the same idea, many of whom had run the Hot Chocolate run that morning.  We wound up heading over to Friday’s on the Ben Franklin Parkway, not a unique Philly experience, but we were hungry.  As it turned out, breakfast was over, and they were serving lunch.  We were also almost their only customers.  We had a very nice lunch of burgers, a some had beers, and all were quite happy.

SJAC runners at Friday's after the Rocky II run.

SJAC runners at Friday’s after the Rocky II run.

After lunch, it was back to Haddonfield.  We had just enough room in a couple of cars to haul everyone back home across the bridge.  Now, we’ll need to start planning next year’s sequel.  As one of our runners, Brian, put it, the sequels really went down in quality after Rocky II.  Let’s hope the Rocky Run’s don’t suffer the same fate.

Randy says so long, from Philadelphia!

Randy says so long, from Philadelphia!

Un détournement de Chamonix.

Chamonix

Chamonix, and a view of Mont Blanc

On my return from Chamonix, the most common question asked of me was how I was treated by the French.  I said very well, but my friends weren’t buying it.  Weren’t they rude and dismissive? Or, do I speak French, and so had an easier time.  Or, if one just makes an attempt to speak French, is that enough?  Until one travels to a foreign country (foreign to the traveler, not so foreign to the people living there), it is difficult to understand the experience.   In the case of Chamonix, it is an international resort, welcoming adventuresome people from all over the world throughout the year. French is the native language, but English, German, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, and Polish, were among the languages I heard while there. There is no doubt about it’s French nature, though. This is evident in the super marché, or super market.  Generally, ski towns have very nice super markets, and here is no exception.  But the meats and cheeses were the best, the wines excellent for about $7-10, the alpine butter delicious, and the choices of fresh vegetables, superb.  It was a very busy place, and typically, around 4 to 5 PM, the locals were crowding the store to buy food for dinner.  It is not customary there, to stock up for a week or more.  How would the food be fresh?  There were boulangeries (bakeries) on every street, and the image of a person carrying a baguette or two sticking out of the bag or backpack is real.  The bread is devine, crusty, yeasty and just the right texture.  Pâtisseries, the pastry shops selling incredible raspberry tarts, eclairs, and other sweets are also common, their wares displayed in windows to lure in the customers.
I don’t speak French, at least not well enough to engage in a conversation, and I may never, but I took the time to learn a little, and have picked up some over the years. While this is an international town, not everyone speaks English, so it helps to know a bit of the native tongue.  Whenever I am in France, I am reminded of the brilliant essay by David Sedaris, “Me talk pretty one day” , in which he describes his attempts to get conversant in French. It is so funny and true, and dangerous to read in company. You’ll embarrass yourself.

I was in Chamonix for a ski trip with friends from Pennsylvania and the UK.  We are an interesting mixed group, thrown together by chance and acquaintanceship, and of varying abilities on the slopes.  Yet we invariably have a great time, and plenty of adventure to boast about.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

We arrived in Geneva on Sunday, March 2, and took a van to Chamonix.  We were dropped off at our elegant Chalet close to the center of town.  One advantage of going with a sizable group, there were eleven in ours, is that we can rent a whole chalet together, and get the benefits of a kitchen, nice rooms, and comfortable living areas.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet was, according to the “bible” left for our perusal by the owners, originally a home built for a physician in Chamonix, over 100 years ago.  It was solidly built, and the current owners upgraded everything to modern standards, with bathrooms in all the bedrooms, a huge, modern kitchen with an industrial stove, and even an outdoor hot tub, which we certainly did make use of.  A few peculiarities of local life:  recycling is done, but one must carry the trash and recyclables to receptacles in town, where there are big bins for trash, glass, plastic and paper.  Bags are not free in grocery stores.  They do sell reusable shopping bags, though.  Vegetables and fruits are weighed by the customer on a scale near the produce section, which spits out a label with the weight and cost.  Without this, one is sent back by the check-out person to fulfill one’s responsibility.

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Chamonix is famous for extreme sports, winter sports, and mountain climbing.  The mural above shows early, formative members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, an association for the guides in this region.  The woman depicted at the top, Marie Paradis, at the time a worker in a hotel, was the first woman to climb to the summit of Mont Blanc, in 1808.  Chamonix was the home of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924.  Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, can be seen clearly from the town, and is a primary attraction here.  The Vallée Blanche is the ski route off of Mont Blanc, accessible from L’Aiguille du Midi, the highest reaching cable car in the valley.  It is unmarked, unpatrolled and quite a challenging run.  I did this run in 2003, with a group from Philadelphia, led by a guide named Christian.

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

Our guide, Christian.

Our guide, Christian.

Some of our group did this same run this year.  I decided not to go, having done it once and survived.  The skiing, though, in this region is not easy.  While there are slopes meant for beginners and intermediates, they are pretty tough due to their steepness and iciness.  Up high at the top of the multiple ski areas which surround the valley, the snow is good and the views amazing.  But the runs at that height are steep, ungroomed, and mainly moguls.  My friends Teresa and Kristine and I took on the second most challenging descent, off the top of Grand Montets, the Point de Vue run along the Argentière glacier.

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

During this trip we also spent a day on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the Monte Bianco side, in Courmayeur.  To get there, we took a bus from Chamonix through the famous Mont Blanc tunnel.  This eleven kilometer long tunnel runs under Mont Blanc, and was the site of a fire in 1999, due to a truck catching fire which was carrying flour and margarine.  Thirty-nine people died, and the tunnel was closed for three years after that for repairs and improvements.  Our bus left from the Chamonix train station and took us directly to the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, with no problems to report.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Skiing in Italy seemed a bit more fun and lighthearted than skiing on the French side.

Enjoying a break in Courmayeur.

Teresa, Christine, Simon, AJ, Drew, Eric, Jen, Paul, Kristine and Frank enjoying a break in Courmayeur.  Thanks, Will, for taking the photo.

The challenges were there, too, as we learned ascending to the top of the Youla gondola.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Traveling to really get away, to have an adventure, take some risks, and be out of range of work allows one’s batteries to recharge.  We had great food, some cooked by our chalet’s caretaker named Abdel.  He is Algerian by birth, with a Moroccan passport, and he loves to cook.  He prepared several dinners for us, including a Moroccan style dinner, and a fondue dinner.  Always he would include fresh salads and lots of vegetables, unlike what a restaurant meal might provide.  We played a truly bawdy card game called “Cards against Humanity”, which we learned from our UK representatives, was heavily weighted toward Americanisms.  Nevertheless, it had us rolling with laughter.  We drank plenty of beer and wine, and completely enjoyed ourselves.

I arrived home late Sunday night and had to be at work the following morning at 6:30.  It was a jarring reminder that I don’t live the holiday, jet-set life full time, only on special occasions.  I also have a half-marathon coming up, and the week of skiing is hardly preparation for a run.  I did run a couple of times in Chamonix, with Will, the eighteen year old who needs to stay in shape for lacrosse.  Good that I was able to keep up with him, although he did carry a backpack on our runs.  By the way, the French people I met were very friendly and forgiving of my grade-school French.  It was a great get-away, and I am looking forward to the next big adventure.

Uncorking Croatia

The Blog of WINES OF CROATIA

RunnersOnTheGo.com

To help enrich the lives of others, we developed RunnersOnTheGo.com to help runners save money on races, running stores, and much more. We also provide the specific local information that makes your travel for business, vacation, or racing as rewarding as possible.

getsetandgo

Travel Blog of a Budget Traveler sharing stories on travel, books & Vegetarian Food

Marc Hemingway

Trying to keep track of my life (and my life on track)

Mid-Life, Mid-Level, Masters Running

Exploring ideas about running to contribute to a more enjoyable pursuit for the mid-level masters runner

therunningtherapist

"One foot in front of the other and one thought at a time"

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

retireediary

The Diary of a Retiree

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: